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Mission Family: Licensing eased for military spouse lawyers

Jun. 18, 2014 - 11:13AM   |  
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Military spouses who are attorneys living in Virginia — and those who could be moving there in the future — are cheering a decision by the Virginia Supreme Court that will make it easier for them to practice law there.

Like other military spouses, these attorneys face many hurdles in trying to hold together a career while pulling up stakes every few years to move with their service member. The cost and scheduling of bar exams are just two such hurdles; equally challenging is the fact that by the time they’re admitted to the bar in one state, it’s time to move to another duty station.

Virginia’s new rules take effect July 1. Military spouses won’t be required to take the Virginia bar exam, and can apply for a provisional license to practice law if they have been previously admitted by a bar in any state or territory or the District of Columbia.

They must live in Virginia, and their military member must be stationed in Virginia or in the “National Capital Region.” There are other specific requirements, such as being associated with another attorney licensed in Virginia.

Spouses appreciate that states like Virginia are recognizing the unique needs of military spouse attorneys, but these decisions don’t happen in a vacuum; many military spouses out there deserve a lot of recognition for nudging along these improvements.

For example, the Military Spouse JD Network, which has grown to about 1,000 members, has been working behind the scenes for years to inform states about the need to make some accommodations for military spouses who practice law as a profession.

It’s a state-by-state process, since individual states have discretion over their rules for granting attorneys license to practice. Six other states have adopted similar rules, including some with large military populations: Arizona, Idaho, Illinois, North Carolina, South Dakota and Texas.

The Military Spouse JD Network has “state rule change teams” that work with the states’ legal communities in the efforts to get rules changed, and collect testimonials from spouses who would benefit from the rule changes. A team just presented testimony to the New Jersey Supreme Court about the issue on May 27.

“Rules like the one Virginia just passed allow spouses like me to start working immediately,” said Thea Pitzen, a Navy wife living in Virginia. “It’s a very lengthy and expensive process, and it’s next to impossible to get admitted [to the bar] without rules like Virginia’s and other states.’ ”

“It’s more than just studying for the bar exam,” she said. Costs can run upward of $10,000 for each bar exam, considering review courses, the cost of travel to the exam, as well as the exam itself. The exams are given twice a year — February and July.

Pitzen, a member of the Milityary Spouse JD Network, was admitted to the bar in Georgia and Florida. But when she moved with her husband to Virginia last year, she decided to get admitted to the bar in the District of Columbia, where she didn’t have to take the bar exam. She works as a contract attorney in the nation’s capital.

“For me, it now becomes a real possibility I’ll get admitted [to the bar] in Virginia. It opens up a lot of career possibilities for spouses while in Virginia,” said Pitzen. “Rule changes like the one just passed by Virginia are a tremendous help for spouses.”

Karen Jowers is married to a military retiree.

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